How Personal Autonomy can Win Freedom Back for Progressives
This election has been characterised by a remarkable focus on the personalities of party leaders, on the UK coalition and by little focus on the powers of the Scottish Parliament. I had hoped that 2007 marked the point where the Scottish Parliament was taken seriously and the extensive powers over tax, education, health, environment and planning were acknowledged by the Scottish press. But this campaign has thrown that hope into doubt. The significance of the welfare reforms being pushed at Westminster is one reason for this. I was given some inspiration by this wonderful video of an RSA seminar:
It’s important to consider how these ideas of autonomy can help to make the case for more power to be given to people, communities and the Scottish Parliament. By empowering people and communities we can increase people’s quality of life and lay the groundwork for an independent Scotland. Giving people more autonomy can make clear the benefits of independence.
The value of autonomy in increasing an individual’s quality of life is fundamental to my belief in Scottish independence. Powers should be devolved as close to the individual and community as is practical. That might mean local currencies in addition to national currencies; it might mean more powers being given to communities over planning or other significant decisions. If we can build a movement that seeks to increase the power held by individuals and communities we can embed a culture of autonomy that will deliver more power to Scotland. This is particularly relevant at a time when the media is even more antagonistic than usual to the idea of an independence referendum.
One of the ways in which autonomy can be seen in the Community buy-outs in the Highlands. Assynt, Gigha (http://www.gigha.org.uk/) and Eigg (http://www.isleofeigg.net/) have shown how communities can be much more effective at running their own affairs than either the state or private landlords. The power to buy community assets is one we must extend to urban communities – so we can multiply the benefits of community buy-outs.
We must learn lessons from how neo-liberal right made its ideas an inevitable solution. In the 1982 preface to “Capitalism and Freedom” Milton Freedman says “There is enormous inertia—a tyranny of the status quo—in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”
The neo-liberal right developed a worldview that answered any problem, from stagflation to a banking crisis with a simple prescription of more privatisation, lower taxes and less welfare. That’s how we’ve ended up with a government that sees the destruction of the welfare state as the answer to a crisis of global capitalism.
It’s clear to anyone who uses a service, works for a service provider or has contact with private companies that there is little advantage to privatisation. The purported cost savings regularly fail to materialise. Often privatisation displaces very significant costs to other public services. But time and again our politicians resort to privatisation as a fix-all solution. This is the product of the embedding of the customer-provider relationship in society. It has become our dominant mode of relationship with each other and the state. In society empowerment and autonomy lies only in the ability to buy things.
One way to fundamentally reconfigure the relationship between the individual, community and state may be to explore concepts like co-production. This will embed social democracy much more deeply in the fabric of our lives. Co-production is an idea being promoted by think tanks like NESTA and the New Economics Foundation. It means placing service users at the heart of services. It allows a move away from the bureaucratic and municipalist models of service delivery that frequently alienate service users. It promotes self-help and services tailored to the user.
In Edinburgh, Green Councillor Maggie Chapman was able to convince Edinburgh Council to allow the community in Leith to control the small grants programme. The £eith Decides day involved over 400 people in a carnival atmosphere. Rather than decisions made behind closed doors, people were able to see how voluntary sector projects improved their community. We should aim to widen participatory budgeting projects like £eith Decides to determine much more of state spending. Similarly, we should spread the right to buy land to urban communities.
This could be at the heart of a new way of doing government. By empowering people to design and contribute to their own services and government spending we will be able to deliver better services. We will also embed an idea of autonomy in our society that is not centred on the consumer-provider relationship, but on a more humane model of community empowerment.
By freeing people and communities from control by the bureaucratic state and the power of big business and the ultra-rich we can make the case for autonomy. This will allow us to promote the inevitable solution to the next crisis not as destruction of the welfare state, but full powers for the Scottish Parliament, and a more significant role for our communities and voluntary associations in creating better lives for everyone.
This post originally appeared in the Scottish Independence Convention blog.